The Great War, I was there - Part 22

FOR CEREMONIAL DUTIES ¦Much “spit and polish ”went to making *th e men of the H.A.C. ready for such duties as those described in this chapter, and here a private is making his bayonet shine like silver. As soon as the battalion reached the front bayonets were allowed to become dull, lest their glint should be seen by an observant enemy. I N March 1916, as one of an abashed squad of recruits, 1 made the plunge into military life at Armoury House, Finsbury Pavement, head­quarters of the Honourable Artillery Company. The formalities included the paying of a subscription of £2 2s., the usual medical examination, and an appearance before an alarming body of old gentlemen known as the Court of Assistants. Their job it was to inquire into our educational qualifications and moral character, perhaps also to test our coolness under fire by facetious comments on our peacetime occupations and personal appearance. Having passed their scrutiny, we were then bidden to sign the roll of the oldest regiment in the British Army, unworthy successors of such amateur soldiers as Sir Christopher Wren and Mr. Samuel Pepys. We donned our rough uniforms, boots heavier than we had ever worn in our lives, and started on that military training which is so rigorous to the uninitiated. As a comparatively elderly ”“rookie I thought it a little hard when I was greeted by two city urchins with the following dialogue:“‘ H.A.C.,’ what’s that, Bill?”“ Don’t you know —Home and Colonial.” There followed pleasant days under canvas at Richmond Park, route marches to Esher, a trip to Bisley, physical jerks under the trees and free evenings roam­ing Wimbledon Common. After some months of this agreeable life I was transferred to the Second Battalion, then engaged on guard duties at the Tower of London and also in providing drafts for the Regiment at the front. This period of my military *156 March 1916— February 1917 I GUARDED SPIES in the TOWER Manifold Duties of an H.A.C, Private by J. B. Sterndale Bennett The author spent his probationary period in the ranks as a member of the Honourable Artillery Company before he was gazetted as an officer to the South Wales Borderers. For some months he was garrisoned at the Tower of London and here describes the odd and interesting duties which he was called upon to perform during this time. Their early experiences on the Home Front remain among the most vivid memories of those who afterwards took their part amidst the mud and slaughter of the battlefields career was full of varied experiences, all valuable to the future subaltern, from acting as scullion in a not too clean kitchen to being a sentry on the King’s Guard. There were three guardrooms at the Tower, the King’s beside the Bloody Tower and Jewel House, at the Byward Tower, and on the Wharf. It is the sentry on duty outside the King’s GuardRoom who challenges the King’s Keys and turns out the guard to present arms. I found this one of the most nerve- racking experiences. One stood all tension in pitch darkness listening to the tramp of the warder with his escort approaching along the cobblestones, feeling certain that one would fumble the challenge as the swinging lantern carried by one of the escort first showed itself under the arches of the Bloody Tower. “Halt! Who goes there ?Whose ?Passkeys King George’s keys. All’s well No. 4 post. Turnout the guard.” That was the sum total of the sentry’s words, but to have fumbled them would have been a lifelong humiliation. Thank God I never did. KJ o lights showed in the Tower in the year 1916, and another eerie sentry- go was up and down by the execution block. I have never been frightened of ghosts, but here if anywhere one might have been forgiven an involuntary shudder. None came to haunt my lonely vigils of two hours’ duration. Perhaps I was too preoccupied waiting for allan too fleshly terror in the shape of the orderly officer with his catechism of my complicated duties. Sentry-go on the Wharf, looking down on a sepia river studded by the dimmed lights of shipping, was infinitely the most weari­some, and although the enemy passed in the sky he never actually bombed us. The guardrooms were also prisons for military delinquents, mostly drunks or deserters rounded up by the military police from the London termini. They 860 only stayed with us while waiting for an escort to take them back to their units. They mostly had money and had a firm conviction that this would buy them special privileges. Their remarks on the incorruptibility of the H.A.C. were not pretty. Rounding up deserters from police stations and taking them to recruiting offices was apt to bean exciting business, and we lost one extremely agile con­scientious objector when he leapt from the top deck of a General omnibus and disappeared into the side streets of the Whitechapel Road. A-V O T H K R gloomy duty which fell on the garrison of the Tower was providing funeral parties for the soldiers who died in London hospitals. More often than not these victims of war had no friends to follow them to the grave, and our little group of artificial mourners alone made the long journey behind the hearse to some outlying cemetery, thereto afire volley over an unknown comrade. A guard was provided by the Tower for the Bank of England. This neces­sitated a march with fixed bayonets through the City, a gruelling ordeal for untried troops. The guardroom at the old Bank was down a gloomy passage where was one of the sentry posts. Another was in the main hall of the Bank, an infinitely dreary spot to spend two solitary hours—the only diversion being to startle some belated clerk by a great clatter of sloping and ordering a loaded rifle. On this guard it was said that the officer received a guinea and his dinner, the sergeant 5s. and the corporal 2s. 6d. We privates certainly were given a brand new shilling with which we could buy beer and hot saveloys from a small canteen. Many stories are told of the political prisoners and enemy spies at the Tower, but I cannot claim ever to have stood sentry over any of the famous German spies who were finally dispatched in the
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